By David Robin
It’s the last week of the 2008 Major League Baseball season and much like every season since 1996, the Tampa Bay Rays are in first place of the American League (AL) East…WHAT?! The sports section of the newspaper has many typos these days. Either that or the absence of the word “devil” from the name of the team from Tampa actually boosted their performance. The Devil Rays were last place with 96 losses last season and this season, the Rays are at the top and currently have 96 wins, with three games left to play. With this impressive turnaround, they are clearly the biggest story of the AL East. When people talk about baseball, they talk about either the rise of the Rays or the fall of the New York Yankees. The Yankees have 87 wins and 72 losses as of today, only a few games back from last year’s 94-68 record. This may not seem like a big difference but they currently sit in third place in the division, with no chance of the playoffs for the first time since 1995. This may not seem like a big idea to some, but this is New York and they are the Yankees, they have no choice but to make it to the playoffs!
I want Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball to take back those words he said in 2003, where he complained about the “competitive imbalance” in baseball. The Yankees are in third place and the Rays, a team that has never made the play-offs, are in first. What did the Yankees do wrong? What change dragged them down the standings for the whole duration of the season? Was it the players? This is clearly not the case because the Yankees did not make as many changes over the offseason as usual. Almost all of the starting players from 2007 were back on the team last April, destroying any thoughts of the team not “meshing.” Was it Joe Torre’s stoic face in the dugout that made the difference? He had a managerial record of 1,173 – 767 during his 12-year term with the Yankees. He left at the end of last year and Joe Girardi edged out Don Mattingly for the manager job during the offseason. While Girardi was the 2006 NL Manager of Year with the Marlins, his job this year with the Yankees has to be looked at with scrutiny. While it is difficult to find out what happens behind the scenes, Girardi was the biggest change from last season and the decisions of a manager can greatly affect a ballclub.
Another scapegoat of the Yankees’ plummet is the Yankees General Manager, Brian Cashman. While he has been with the Yankees since 1998, he has been at the helm for 3 World Series titles. While he has signed great players like Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui, he has also signed huge busts like Jaret Wright, Jose Contreras, Kei Igawa, Kevin Brown, and Carl Pavano. Is it possible that these bad moves have compounded over time and finally greatly affected the Yankees? The same thing happened to the Braves, who are in 4th place, 18 games out of first place. While looking at management, the owners of the Yankees, Hank and Hal Steinbrenner. Last year, the never subtle George Steinbrenner was the owner of the team. He has always given players and managers a short leash and while he has been criticized for his moves, he always puts winning before everything else. While this may not have been healthy, especially since he stepped down after being too sick to continue as the owner, it may have given motivation to the team that simply not exist with George’s sons. Okay, enough about management, let’s look at the players, since they are the ones who actually play out the games.
The Yankees pitching has been seen as inferior to previous years, especially due to early season injuries. They were already gambling during spring training with a starting rotation consisting of Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, two unproven rookies. The third notable rookie, Joba Chamberlin, was going to be a starter but began the season as the setup reliever, his proven position. Hughes and Kennedy did not perform to expectations and they both ended up getting injured, as well as the Yankees ace, Chien Ming Wang. However, the holes were filled and the rotation did much better than expected. Mike Mussina had arguably the best season of his career, with a 19-9 record and a 3.47 ERA. In addition, Andy Pettitte went 14-14 with a 4.54 ERA which wasn’t his best but he still had many impressive outings. Rookie reliever, Dan Giese had a 3.53 ERA and while he only started three games, he still came through when it counted. Chamberlin also came through once he became a starter but was bitten by the injury bug. However, hese few positives could not outweigh the negatives and the injuries. Sidney Ponson had one or two good starts but he was inconsistent, Carl Pavano is providing too little, too late, and a 5.34 ERA and a 5-10 record was not what the Yankees expected when they called up Darrell Rasner. Without the injuries, these weaknesses in the farm system may not have been revealed and the Yankees may have had a stronger starting rotation, but hindsight is twenty-twenty and hitting is also important in baseball.
The Yankees are .259 with runners in scoring position. This is the worst that they have done in these clutch situations in a long time. When watching a Yankee game this season, it is hard to get excited when players are in scoring position because the Yankees have flat-out not come through in these situations. However, the Rays also have a very low batting average with runners in scoring position so the importance of this statistic may be overstated. Many of the Yankee starters have not had the seasons that were expected of them. Derek Jeter has finally made it just over .300 with only 69 runs batted in (RBIs). Abreu is batting .296 with only 20 homeruns and Alex Rodriguez is at .300 with only 101 RBIs , impressive statistics but not what A-Rod is used to. Cano is batting only .264 with 66 RBIs, Melky Cabrera was batting .243 with 46 RBIs before he was sent down to the minor leagues, and Giambi is sitting at .251, a far cry from the .342 that he posted in 2002. It seems as if almost all of the Yankees most important hitters just fell into a malaise. Injuries are also a key element to the collapse of the Yankee offense. Jeter and A-Rod were injured early in the season, with Matsui and Posada following soon after. Damon had a good season until his shoulder bothered him, sitting him out for an important segment of the season. While Molina did a satisfactory job behind the plate and the Xavier Nady was a great addition from the Pirates, it just wasn’t enough. Cody Ransom, Brett Gardner, and Justin Christian tried their best to fill in the numerous holes but they could not compensate from the great loss. This combination of injuries and bad years for many players definitely contributed to their collapse.
After examining these factors, it is apparent that it was not one factor, but a combination of different ones which led to the fall of the Yankees- much like the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. The debate will continue all offseason but it is very hard to blame only one aspect of the Yankees’ failure. The only thing left to say, is that maybe the new Yankee Stadium will revitalize the team next season. Let’s Go Mets?